Ever since we bought our first container of Costa Rican microlots in 2004, we have been nurturing and growing our relationships with producers there, only to see the projects, partnerships, and the coffees themselves blossom in ways we honestly just could not have imagined back then.
Our operation is extensive in Costa Rica. At our office and cupping lab in San José, farmers stop by to cup coffees, watch buyers cup their coffees, or just grab some GrainPro bags to take back to the mill. We're living there (well, one of our green buyers is, anyway) from December to May which allows us to constantly source coffees and to keep our doors open for our customers in a way that a two-week visit, or a simple agent on the ground, just does not allow.
Rain. That one word defined this year, but in ways that were not expected. Unlike the dry season previous, the rains came at precisely the right times for peak cherry development during the 2016/2017 growth cycle.
The rain was a boon to coffee growers, but it changed the tenor of the harvest season completely, creating a bit of drama as producers scrambled to pick, process, and pack their abundant crops in half the usual time. Normally this is a major problem, as farmers are not able to give the coffee the attention that it demands, but this year, the volume was also down, so that all came together for some coffees that are shaping up to be stellar.
Tropical storm Otto hit Costa Rica late this past November, bringing heavy rain and gusting winds that knocked many of the ripening cherries to the ground. At the beginning of the harvest period, when seasonal workers began to show up to begin picking coffee, the cherry still wasn't ready - many left in search of work elsewhere. As luck would have it, just as the workers left the coffee became ready to pick.
This particular situation affected one of our longtime partners: the Las Lajas micromill in Sabanilla de Alajuela. Suddenly, the coffee on their seven farms had ripened at the same time - which meant pickers had double work to do to keep up with the loads being harvested, and the patios and drying beds were soon filled with drying coffee, putting space at a premium.
Co-operatives and larger organizations were also feeling the crunch: The loss of cherry and the lack of labor resources put a strain on the harvest for the complicated networks of small producers who pool resources and often make several large sweeps through the fields for ripe cherry, rather than returning daily to each tree as they are able to do at smaller operations.
As a result, while we expect to see a significant drop in full-container volume from larger cooperatives this year, the micromills are a different story: quality appears to be up, and the volume should be just about the same as last year.
The theory is that a majority of cherries knocked from the branches by the storm were weak or of lesser quality to begin with. A natural "pruning" of these cherries by the rain and wind meant only the stronger cherries remained, which meant they also received the bulk of the nutrients, sunlight, and energy from the plant during maturation.
Costa Rica measures the harvest by using a cajuela, a metal box that is filled to the brim with cherry, then closed, and counted to give a tally of how many full cajuelas a producer has brought to the mill. The harvest is measured in volume, but the cajuelas are also weighed to compare one year's crop with the last. Last year the average weight of one cajuela was 11-12 kilograms. This year, cajuelas from the majority of our microlot partners are weighing 12-13.5 kilograms.
More sugars, and riper cherry, weigh more in each box. This is the direct result of a near-perfect growing season with unique weather conditions prior to the harvest.
We have begun to cup the first samples of this year from our partners like Las Lajas and the Aguilera Bros at our lab in San José, and we'll soon taste those samples in Minneapolis and our international offices as well. Most all of these microlot samples are cupping in at least one whole point higher than last year - and these are just the first samples of the year.
In short, we are seeing better quality in terms of both full-container and microlots and expect a significant decrease in the exportable volume of larger cooperative coffees this year. In terms of microlot processing, we expect the majority to be honey, followed by washed, and then naturals.
All of this goes to show not only the impact of climate variances and the unpredictability of weather in the coffee lands, but also that adaptability is key: Where our micromill partners are able to adjust their harvest season to capitalize on the quality cherry production, small farmers in co-operatives seemed better able to capture quality without also producing quantity. As the Earth warms and patterns change, we will see more of these types of season-by-season adaptations and the evolution of production in Costa Rica and beyond - but for right now, we can simply wait for the delicious coffees to start rolling in.
We are currently in the middle of finalizing our Microlot containers from Costa Rica. As they become available, our offering sheet will reflect these lots. We suggest, if you haven't done so already, email your rep with your needs including process, bag counts, and any specific farms or micromills. We will do our best to make sure everyone is accommodated and has some delicious Costa Rican coffee for this season!